Monday the National Journal reported that President Barack Obama is
reconsidering his decision to appoint former Senator Chuck Hagel secretary of
Hagel’s looming appointment provoked angry responses from many
leading Jewish voices in the US.
Whether this opposition made a
difference in driving Obama to reconsider his choice is unclear. Other
influential groups – including senators, members of the military and lobbyists
for homosexual rights – expressed their discomfort and opposition to the
prospect of having Hagel serve as defense secretary.
Still it is notable
that Hagel’s possible appointment sparked an outcry among prominent American
Jews and that this outcry had some unknown impact on Obama’s possible decision
to cancel Hagel’s appointment.
If Obama indeed scuttles Hagel’s elevation
to defense secretary, it shows that it is possible to fight Obama on foreign
policy even in his second term, and win, at least sometimes. This is important
information for Republicans, American Jews and the Israeli
Obama will have multiple, massive domestic challenges to
contend with in his second term. If he wishes to focus on advancing his domestic
agenda, he may well punt on foreign affairs.
The US president’s inbox is
always overflowing. One of the hardest things for a president to do is take
control over his own agenda.
Just consider the issue of gun
Certainly, as a liberal Democrat, Obama is for it. But Obama has
never made the issue of restricting gun ownership a priority during his
presidency. Now in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre, he is suddenly
spending a lot of time on the issue and going into a head-to-head battle with
the National Rifle Association.
Maybe Obama will win this
battle. Maybe he’ll lose it. But he will be focusing on it a lot in the
Again, this is not an issue that was ever central to his
agenda. But due to an unforeseen event, it has become an issue that he is now
forced to spend time on.
There are, of course, foreseeable issues to
which Obama will have to devote his presidential time, energy and
The biggest among them is the implementation of Obamacare.
Budgetary and tax woes are not far behind. With only 24 hours in the day, Obama
will not be able to focus on Israel or foreign policy on a daily basis. And in
order to make time for other things, which are more important to him, or more
immediately pressing, Obama may be willing to make concessions on his foreign
Recently, I came across an article I wrote the month
before the 2006 elections in Israel. In it, I argued that the reason the Sharon
government had such good relations with the US was because it bowed to every US
demand, no matter how antithetical it was to Israel’s national
In the piece, I mentioned then prime minister Ariel Sharon’s
decision to set aside his concerns and bow to US pressure to permit Hamas to
participate in the Palestinian Authority’s legislative elections in January
2006. For bending to Washington’s will, Israel got plaudits from US secretary of
state Condoleezza Rice and president George W. Bush. But Israel also got Hamas
in charge, an even more radicalized Fatah racing to prove its own terror bona
fides to measure up to Hamas, and increased international isolation for the
Jewish state as nation after nation began softening to the idea of Hamas being a
In retrospect, it would certainly have been
better for Israel – and for America – if Sharon had stood up to Rice and simply
refused to permit Hamas to participate in the elections. It would have been
better to have had a public fight with Washington and kept Hamas out of power
than maintain warm relations with the Bush administration while empowering a
terror group that openly seeks the annihilation of Israel and the Jewish
This brings us to Obama, his apparent decision to stand down on
Hagel, US relations with Israel in Obama’s second term in office, and finally to
how the Israeli election campaign plays into all of these things.
Israeli Left’s basic critique of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stewardship
of Israel in the international arena revolves around its accusation that
Netanyahu has wrecked Israel’s relations with the US by standing up to
But whereas by not standing up to Bush and Rice, Israel got Hamas
in power and missiles on Jerusalem, by standing up to Obama, Israel is still in
control of Judea and Samaria and the two-state delusion has been increasingly
discredited in Israel, and to a lesser degree in the US.
has coaxed a reluctant US administration into passing serious sanctions against
Iran. Although economic pressure hasn’t made any dent in Iran’s nuclear weapons
program, Israeli pressure has made it harder for Obama to simply accept Iranian
nuclear weapons. Vocally expressing Israeli concerns has also helped lawmakers
from both parties maintain pressure on Obama to prevent Iran from acquiring
nuclear weapons and publicly support a potential Israeli strike against Iran’s
It is understandable that Netanyahu is keeping mum
on his diplomatic achievements. He can’t risk even worse relations with Obama by
mentioning his success in keeping the US president at bay in his quest to
diminish Israel’s strategic options.
What makes less sense is his
decision to adopt the Left’s talking points against the Right in his assault on
the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party and its leader Naftali Bennett.
Thursday, Bennett was conned by television personality Nissim Mishal into
discussing how he would personally respond as a soldier to the completely
hypothetical issue of IDF expulsions of Jews in Judea and Samaria. The reason
the issue is artificial is because no one is proposing a mass expulsion of
Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria today. The Palestinians are uninterested
in negotiating with Israel.
Netanyahu is uninterested in surrendering
land. And the Left, which would like to surrender land, has no chance of winning
next month’s elections.
So Mishal manipulated Bennett into an irrelevant
policy discussion in order to embarrass him. Bennett responded by saying he
would personally object to fulfilling an order to expel Jews from their homes,
and if necessary, bear the personal consequences.
Netanyahu himself is
quite familiar with Nissim Mishal’s manipulations of political theater to
embarrass candidates on the Right. In 1999, during a televised candidates’
debate when Netanyahu ran for reelection as prime minister, Mishal repeatedly
interjected himself into the debate to support rival candidate Yitzhak
Mordechai’s character attacks on Netanyahu.
Mordechai, who would be
convicted of serial sexual harassment two years later, accused Netanyahu of
lacking honesty, integrity and decency, saying “You know your best friends don’t
Mishal then chimed in, asking Netanyahu if he had any
Bennett and the Bayit Yehudi party are potentially the Likud’s
largest coalition partner in the next government.
Rather than leave
Bennett alone, the Likud has opened an all-out war against him, castigating him
as an extremist.
Likud’s impulse to attack is eminently understandable.
Bennett is cannibalizing Likud voters. And recently, he opened an ill-advised,
counterproductive attack on the Likud and Netanyahu.
But by attacking one
another, Bennett and Netanyahu are discrediting their own positions.
Netanyahu really want to argue that it is extremist to oppose the forcible
expulsion of Jews from land Netanyahu himself argues Israel needs to defend
itself from external invasion? Does Bennett really want to argue that the prime
ministerial candidate he favors, and in whose government he hopes to sit, is too
weak to be trusted to lead Israel? Israel faces massive challenges in the coming
years. The apparent scuttling of Hagel’s appointment is a hopeful sign that if
we keep our heads about us, we can prevent Obama from taking steps that are
truly antithetical to Israel’s survival.
But we must understand, the
reason Hagel was apparently defeated is because the opposition to his
appointment was strong, coherent and unified.
Israel needs a strong,
coherent government to meet the challenges it will face in the next four years,
including working with a hostile Obama administration.
We won’t get one
if the leaders of the nationalist camp are using the Left to weaken and
discredit one another.